Acoustic songs. Some rock bands go through their entire career cycle (from garages and basements, up to bars, to arenas, to stadiums, back down to arenas, to county fairs, to bowling alleys and, finally, VFW Hall keg parties) without ever recording one. Other bands have acoustic tunes that are integral parts of their repertoire. Obviously, we shall eschew the former for the latter in this latest installment in musical subjectivity. The 50 acoustic songs I've selected (I had to stop eventually!) range wildly in tone, mood and lyrical content, but they all have that elusive compositional quality that sets them apart from the single, requisite, run-of-the-mill anthemic acoustic ballad that big-haired 80's bands played to allow their beer-soaked drummer time to take a piss break.
These songs are not merely replacing electric guitars for acoustics just for effect (and played in the same manner); on the contrary, most are contemplative and exhibit an air of vulnerability, because rock bands that usually rely on a barrage of high-decibel electrics and explosive percussion are suddenly left exposed with merely an acoustic guitar and a microphone between them and the audience. There is no wall of sound to mask imperfection, and no pyrotechnics to draw attention away from what is sung. There is only reflective music, or in the case of The Pogues and Violent Femmes, a bit of manic acoustic madness. It is, after all, still rock 'n' roll.
P.S. Here is a follow-up to this article: Great Acoustic Rock Songs - The Next Fifty
Here Comes The Sun
-- What more can be said about the inestimable contribution to music that The Beatles have given over the last 50 years? There are no other artists who can repackage masters nearly a half a century after their original release and go to number one: with their whole catalog! There are many stunning Beatles' acoustic pieces, but these three seem to me to be the most important. 'Here Comes The Sun', along with 'Something' on the 'Abbey Road' album mark the greatest contributions to The Beatles by George Harrison. 'Eleanor Rigby' is important in rock history because there is absolutely no guitars, no drums and no bass. The accompaniment to Paul McCartney's vocals are a double string quartet. Not to mention that 'Eleanor Rigby' is a pop tune that hit number one with lyrics that dealt with depression, loneliness and death. 'Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)' marks the first time a rock band used a sitar in a recording. I don't know if that turned out to be a good thing, given the instrument's overuse in the psychedelic era; nonetheless, The Beatles did it first.
Can't Find My Way Home
-- One wonders, yes one does, why Blind Faith couldn't have put together a more cohesive album. The talent collectively assembled (Steve Windwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Ric Grech) is hall-of-fame caliber, yet we only get flashes of brilliance on their one and only album. 'Can't Find My Way Home' is just such a streak of sunlight in an otherwise overcast sky.
-- Many people swear by Jeff Buckley's more sexually-charged version of this song, but I prefer Cale's take of Leonard Cohen's great composition, particularly the brilliant strings in this video. There is sadness and regret and desire -- a mature man reflecting on a fiery relationship that burned brightly but faded like a falling star. Buckley's youthful version is certainly well done, but it lacks the rueful conviction of age and experience.
CROSBY, STILLS & NASH
-- I hate YouTube. Half the time, I can't find the proper version of the song I want to discuss, and the other half is overladen with silly homemade videos that do nothing but cause lag. What do you mean, 'I need more memory'? This Commodore 386 works just fine. I don't even feel I have to upgrade to an Amiga. Anyway, Crosby, Stills & Nash + acoustic guitars = peas and carrots.
Crazy Man Michael
-- Two different plaintive and melancholy tunes from Fairport's 'What We did on Our Holiday' and the landmark 'Liege and Lief' albums. The first, 'Fotheringay', recounts the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots in Fotheringay Castle, and the second, 'Crazy Man Michael', deals with the growing insanity of the character, Michael, and his conversation with a raven who haunts him (much like in Poe's immortal poem). Both songs feature the ethereal vocals of the late Sandy Denny, one of the most underappreciated singers in all of rock.
-- Good lord, was Stevie Nicks hot in the 70's! What she saw in that scrawny peacock Lindsey Buckingham, I'll never know. 'Landslide' was recorded before Stevie burnt a hole through her nasal passages snorting coke, which eventually left her sounding like a singing goat: J-u-u-u-u-st like the white w-i-i-inged d-o-o-o-ove sings the song, sounds like she's singing, Bah-baby,bah-bah-bah. 'Landslide', along with 'The Chain' are, in my humble opinion, the best songs from the post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac.
-- Released after Gabriel's somewhat acrimonious breakup with Genesis, 'Solsbury Hill' turns uncertainty of the future into a thrilling anthem of hope, as Gabriel has an epiphany while sitting atop Solsbury Hill near a home he owned in the nearby city of Bath. Instruments are continually layered upon the acoustic guitar line throughout the song until it reaches a lengthy crescendo at the end. The allusory and highly poetic lyrics are some of the best Gabriel ever wrote.
-- One of the best songs on 'Trick of the Tail', the last great Genesis album, 'Entangled' purposely evokes a mesmerizing, dreamlike quality because it deals with a patient being anesthetized prior to surgery. The last post-op lines are hilarious.
-- And the punk establishment rolls their eyes. Whatever. You can't wear your Joey Ramone Fright Wig® forever. 'Good Riddance' became the 90's version of a graduation song in the same manner Lynryd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' was in the 70's. It hit all the right chords, so to speak, and has an inner meaning shared by millions of listeners who can all claim a piece of it as their own, whether you have blue hair, a skinhead or a mohawk.
Hear My Train a' Comin'
-- This is a great song and a fascinating video. Imagine, Hendrix being nervous and apologetic about playing a guitar! But one gets a look at the shy, introspective Hendrix personality behind the burning and smashed guitars and wildly psychedelic clothes. Just imagine, September 18th marks the 40th anniversary of his death. He still touches countless lives and influences new generations of guitarists.
-- A seemingly well-kept secret about Jethro Tull is that Ian Anderson isn't just a flautist, but an exceptional acoustic guitarist as well; in fact, the legend goes that Ian only picked up the flute in the first place because it was easy to carry around from gig to gig. The selections I offer here present the devilishly tricky chord progressions and stylized structure of Tull's acoustic songs. Of particular note is the highly complex dual guitars on 'Salamander', Ian Anderson's turn on mandocello in 'Fat Man' and the triple-tracked poem intro and eerie phasing of vocals and guitar on 'Dun Ringill'.
Battle of Evermore
-- 'The Battle of Evermore', with its legendary allusions to Tolkien's Middle-earth, is a duet between Robert Plant and Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention along with Jimmy Page featured on mandolin. 'Gallows Pole' is a traditional ballad popularized by Leadbelly, with Jimmy Page taking turns on acoustic guitar and banjo. The difference on the Zeppelin version is that the hangman eventually kills the man in spite of all his enticements, whereas traditionally the hangman sets him free. 'Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp' is about Robert Plant's dog (a 'blue-eyed merle' border collie), and a crazy, capoed, drop D alternative tuning with slide played by Page.
Working Class Hero
-- Lennon drops the f-bomb! No, that's not why I chose this song -- well, in a way, it is. Lennon's 'Plastic Ono Band' album marks the point-of-no-return for The Beatles, the final nail in the coffin, and Lennon's compositions on this masterpiece are sparsely arranged, angry and unapologetic. There are no top-ten radio hits here, and there is no over-produced Beatlemania. It is just Lennon venting and expressing himself in a more introverted style than he ever showed within the confines of the Fab Four. The finest song is 'Working Class Hero', and it is a simple but devastating piece. It is, as Lennon mentioned in an interview, about the processing of average working class people into the mold of the middle class. Into the machine.
MARSHALL TUCKER BAND
Can't You See
-- 'Can't You See' is one of the most gut-wrenching songs of love lost ever written. One can't write a song with that much emotion without experiencing the pangs of loss firsthand. I would say that Marshall Tucker was a great songwriter, however there was never a Marshall Tucker in the band. The group saw the name on a key ring in a studio and thought it would make a nifty name. Such is the stuff of rock legend.
-- Perhaps the best lyrical interpretation of a painter's work, the starkly beautiful poetry McLean uses invokes Van Gogh's vivid portraits and frames them with languid and lush words. 'American Pie' may have been Don McLean's biggest hit, but 'Vincent' is the best song he ever wrote.
THE MOODY BLUES
For My Lady
-- The Moody Blues have consistently recorded stunningly beautiful compositions throughout their career. Here are just two, 'The Actor' from 'In Search of the Lost Chord', and the sea-chantey 'For My Lady' from 'Seventh Sojourn'.
THE NEW SEEKERS
Look What They've Done to My Song
-- Some folks like the Nina Simone version of this song, others prefer the one by Melanie; I, however, love this demented cover by The New Seekers who, besides this twisted bit of Brechtian balladry, were best known for the song 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing' (the legendary Coca Cola theme song of the 70's). Other than that, I know or care nothing for them. But this one song is fabulous!
Wish You Were Here
Goodbye Blue Sky
-- "Wish You Were Here' has one of the most recognizable intro guitar riffs ever recorded. This song of alienation and regret was, ironically, composed by David Gilmour and Rogers Waters in separate pieces, as Gilmour had nearly completed the main theme and refrain and Waters had already assembled the lyric about ex-bandmate Syd Barret and Water's grandmother, who died around that time from complications of Alzheimer's disease. In an interview, Waters explained he would go to see his grandmother and "she would look at me with an anguished expression and go, 'Robert!' Robert was her husband, who had been dead for twenty years. It was very tortured and moving." The song 'Goodbye Blue Sky' is another happy, carefree tune about 'The Blitz' from 'The Wall', with an excellent descending scale on acoustic guitar mirrored by Gilmour's vocals.
-- The album 'Wildflowers' is Tom Petty's best, with or without The Heartbreakers, and the title track is simply a tranquil bit of acoustic harmoniousness. Mellifluousness, even. One needn't deal in musical complexities all the time. There is something to be said of simplicity on occasion.
Sickbed of Cuchullain
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
-- What goes better with traditional Irish music than drunken English Punks? Okay, only half were Brits, but the influential manner in which the punk ethic (a mutually exclusive term, I know) and Gaelic melodies found strong accord in the hands and track-marked arms of The Pogues. Few punk bands were so original; in fact, you can count them on Shane MacGowan's teeth. If he has any left. This is not your mother's acoustic music -- this aint no 'Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore' (alleluia!).
THE ROLLING STONES
-- When the Stones really tried, they could make some magnificent acoustic gems. But that could also be said for their entire catalog. Here are three: 'Angie' the best song from the abysmal 'Goats Head Soup', 'Sweet Virginia' from the sublime 'Exile on Main Street' and 'Wild Horses' from 'Sticky Fingers', which is probably The Stones' third or fourth best album. Give or take.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL
For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her
-- Simon & Garfunkel brought the acoustic guitar to the forefront of rock, creating aural landscapes and deeply personal reflections with lush harmonies and a depth in lyrical content that is too often missing in rock music. Songwriting of this magnitude is utterly missing in this sequenced era of sloppy, muttered rhymes and measuring one's manhood based on the gold content of one's dental work.
Father and Son
-- Cat Stevens was the voice of youth in the early and mid-70's, with songs that mirrored the hopes and fears and the search for meaning that defined the fractured era that followed the more hopeful 60's. Looking back on Steven's songbook, it is easy to see now that his spiritual journey via music would eventually lead him to a religious epiphany. It is unfortunate that that odyssey led him to Islam and, like Botticelli's religious conversion by Savonarola during the height of the Renaissance, caused Stevens to abandon many of his greatest songs for many decades.
Sweet Baby James
Carolina on My Mind
-- I've seen James Taylor a few times in concert, and his music has such a calming effect that I think they should pipe it through federal penitentiaries. Yes sir, saltpeter mixed in with the meals and James Taylor on the P.A. -- a natural means of pacification. And if Taylor is relaxing, then these two songs are quintessential. Taylor closes each show with 'Sweet Baby James' (possibly my favorite tune of his) and listening to 'Carolina on My Mind' makes me want to drive to Greensboro right then and there.
-- This song, from Traffic's great 'John Barleycorn Must Die', is an allegorical story of the cereal crop barley, and its sowing, reaping and finally distilling into alcohol in the personification of one 'John Barleycorn' who is treated "most barbarously" throughout the entire process, but gets his revenge at the end by turning men into hopeless drunks. This traditional song dates back to at least the mid-16th century.
THE VIOLENT FEMMES
Blister in the Sun
-- Perhaps the most manic acoustic guitar tune ever recorded. The conventional interpretation of this song is that it is about masturbation ("Body and beats, I stain my sheets, I don't even know why"), or about latent homsexuality ("big hands I know you're the one"), or about a girlfriend turned off by the singer's small penis and who is seeking a man with 'bigger hands' ("My girl friend, she's at the end, she is starting to cry"). Whichever theory you subscribe to, the Violent Femmes offered an anthem to sexual ambiguity that is hilariously edgy.
Raggle Taggle Gypsy
-- The Waterboys released two of the best folk rock albums of the 80's: 'Fisherman's Blues' and 'Room to Roam'; in fact, aside from The Pogues and Fairport Convention, there was very little happening on the folk rock front in that squalid decade. The song 'Fisherman's Blues' is the title track from The Waterboys' best album, and 'Raggle Taggle Gypsy' is the best-ever cover of that traditional song, and it appears on the underrated 'Room to Roam' album.
And You and I
-- It was difficult to choose a Yes song for this list, particularly due to the eclectic jazz and classically influenced variation from hard to quiescent material in the same composition. If you've seen Yes in concert, you'll recall how guitarist Steve Howe accomplishes this musical sleight of hand: he keeps his electric guitar strapped on, while his acoustic is mounted to a specially designed stand that allows him to trade back and forth at a moment's notice. 'And You and I' carries an acoustic guitar theme throughout the song.
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Needle and the Damage Done
For the Turnstiles
-- Whether as part of Buffalo Springfield or CSN&Y, backed by Crazy Horse or The Stray Gators, or appearing solo as he often does, Neil Young music is a dichotomy of gritty, growling guitar distortion and stark acoustic ruminations. Young is one of the few rock stars who is known just as much for high-wattage electrics ('Rockin' the Free World', 'Cortez the Killer', 'Cinnamon Girl', 'Hurricane', etc.) as he is for acoustics ('Old Man', 'Heart of Gold', 'Pocahontas', etc.). Here are three from different periods: 'Needle and the Damage Done' is from 1972 and tells the story of his friend, guitarist Danny Whitten, and his heroin addiction (which eventually killed him); 'For the Turnstiles is a highly quirky, off key bit of poetic musing from 1974's 'On the Beach'; and 'My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)' is from the 1979 masterpiece 'Rust Never Sleeps'.